South Africa’s gender lessons (2)

Now I turn to address two of the questions from the visiting colleagues I spoke about in my previous blog entry.

1. The first was about the nature of the challenges we face in gender generally, and then, as specifically linked to the public education system.

My response to this question is quite simple, really. Firstly, on the education system, much remains to be done. In schools, the South African Schools Act lays out progressive gender frameworks, but research is showing that even when teachers and principals are aware of these provisions, they often fall short. They do this often by resorting to more familiar patriarchal ways of living gender even as they know this disadvantages many of their students. Often staff at school argue that they are unable to be beacons of change that encourage performances of gender that differ radically from those in the communities around them. As far as I am concerned, this is just refusing to take responsibility and choosing instead to pass the buck. Schools do a whole lot of other things that surrounding communities don’t do, when it suits them. But this irresponsible buck-passing is the same reason that misogyny and homophobia goes unchecked in our schools.

A second challenge we face on the gender front has to do with how under-resourced the National Gender Machinery (NGM) is in SA. Much has been written and said on how this under-resourcing prevents the NGM from fulfilling its mandate as it best sees fit.

Thirdly, although this is beginning to change, somewhat, the discussion on sexuality continues to be largely stifled unless coupled with violence – so pleasure, choice, orientation, etc are muted to large extent.

Fourth – class, the burden of HIV and stitma, and access to infrastructure continues to hamper women’s life choices more significantly. Although the digital divide is gendered worldwide, as much research into women and ICTs shows, we continue to worry about what this gendering means in the SA contexts. Yes, there is progressive government legislation and policy on ICTs. And, yes, there are phenomenal organisations like Women’sNet and LinuxChix Africa that do feminist work in the ICT space. These deserve mention and recognition. But much needs to be done still.

Fifth, and turning to speak of the higher education sector more directly now, the challenges abound. At the level of faculty and staff, there have been shifts, although some of these are not sustained. Some universities are doing better than others in terms of promoting and supporting women’s leadership. Sadly, some are worse off now than they were a few years ago, so there is backlash foot soldiers are alive and well.

Sixth, while the Employment Equity Act was designed with penalties to dissuade universities from defaulting on the Equity Plans submitted to governments, some universities simply do not see their plan through and simply pay the millions in fines to government during the audit periods.

Seventh, student enrollments continue to be gendered in troubling ways – with divisions between faculties, and low retentions of women students from disciplines like Computer Science and other hard sciences, for example. (Again, global research shows us how hostile and masculinist ICT disciplines and professions are.) Medical school enrollments seem to be the only exceptions to this rule.

Women experience a range of gendered situations differently depending on other power differentials at play: race, class, sexual orientations, ability, religion, etc. Indeed, one of the heated gender debates in RSA currently is linked to whether affirmative action policies have so far advantaged white women, and invisibilised Black women that they need to be revised so that white women no longer qualify.

2. The second question was about how hopeful we are.

Gender transformative work is an ongoing project, but I am very aware of the vast changes we have seen in previous years. I was an adult when apartheid ended, and I had been explicitly identifying as a feminist (among other things) since high school. In many respects, I really feel like this is another country. Much work needs to be done still, but this really is not the same country. One of my closest friends, the feminist writer Gail Smith, often remarks on how well we have taken to the enormous changes at the small everyday actions and choices level in post-apartheid South Africa. This is true for me, as for her, as Black women who lived our childhoods under apartheid. So, when you have seen such enormous change in your lifetime, you really have faith in significant changes and can commit to being part of further change, if you wish.

There is amazing feminist energy in this country – far from the majority – but look at how much has been achieved innovatively by a small cluster of women who are impossible to silence. How can I not be hopeful that my feminist work will contribute to changing this country even more?

I am hopeful because I see such innovation often. Further, because I teach young adults, I can also often see immediate challenges and changes in thinking about gender. I have also seen how certain strategies within the academy can push through change, and at my past institution was able to witness through the fatigue how much our stubborness in less than a decade had change the gendering of hierarchy.

I am hopeful because even though there is annoying undermining of women leaders, such figures continue to be on the rise especially in the political arena.

I am also hopeful, finally, for the same reason I am often frightened: by the backlash. Backlash is exhausting, but it also helps make us more stubborn. Powerful systems do not fight back unless they are under threat. We must be doing a lot right.

Another one of my closest friends, the feminist activist and writer, Nomboniso Gasa, points out that we need to start thinking of power differently all the time as feminists. We need an ever-evolving understanding of how different forms of power work – destructively and affirmingly. Another reminder from her is the importance of affirming the self as an important part of doing feminist work wherever we are.

I am not the only hopeful one.


Posted on 31 October 2007, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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